I recently had a conversation with a complete stranger on a train. This is a common experience for me as I spend a lot of time commuting between two major towns in the UK; something which can by turns be exhausting, joyful, frustrating and sociable.
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I don’t know his name yet, but let’s call him Joe. He described himself as, ‘a square peg in a round hole’ working in the IT industry ‘on a dying mainframe system’. None-the-less, Joe seemed content enough with his life. This is what he said:
‘These days people have become very fragmented and atomised, but at the same time they are fiercely individualistic and will defend their right to believe whatever they want – sometimes to the death. You aren’t alone in your feelings about this.’
‘I don’t fit in well with the people I work with though. They’re all the right type for that place, but not me. I just carry on as best as I can to get by.’
That’s a paraphrase: my memory is good – but not perfect. In any case, I agree with Joe. He has a mortgage (nearly paid for) a partner (‘She might as well be my wife, but we aren’t married’) and a suitcase full of experiences. Had he been, ‘the right type’ we would never have had that conversation, because such people are rarely interesting or even mildly engaging. That’s the whole point of this article.
Speaking for myself, I rent a medium sized flat in a large city. My flat is located in a red light district: not half as bad as you might think because at least the rent is low. On the other hand, the neighbourhood tends to colour people’s view of me.
‘It’s a dodgy area!’ So therefore – QED, I must also be dodgy; an amateur poet and bedsit musician with a second class honours degree. But who cares? My entire personal history is disregarded – replaced with urban shorthand: you are where you live. You are what you own. You are a commodity; or worse still, an accessory to be bolted onto someone’s life and removed when deemed expedient.
I can’t afford a mortgage (that requires a double income) and I do indeed live in a place with no sense of community. I used to know my neighbours, but not now: the good ones have moved away. I share a small block of flats with four other people, and if I pass them in the corridor they occasionally acknowledge my presence, but I don’t know their names. Not long ago one of them actually grunted at me. I wonder if he realised what kind of signal that sends out?
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Although I’m not a Marxist, Karl Marx wrote about alienation, and here I am experiencing it at first hand. It’s not an abstract intellectual concept after all, because for me this means a gradual stripping away of personal identity and spontaneity; the growing realisation that if you were to stand in a large crowd with a basket of stones (or sponge balls if you’re feeling gentle) you could pelt them around all day without hitting someone with a social conscience. Did I say all day? All year! Do I hear any bids for an entire lifetime?
Community has been replaced with naked self interest and greed. There are genuine communities out there, but they seem to exist in isolated pockets around the globe, and I have no idea what it is like to actively enjoy living somewhere over a prolonged period. A strong sense of self is very much linked to shared values and a feeling of belonging; but for me, this is largely missing. I don’t blame myself for this because it’s a side effect of global capitalism.
I know I’m not alone. This year I became involved in a project to set up a brand new housing project called the ‘ Dandelion Housing Co-op‘. This article is not really an advert for our nascent organisation (though publicity is useful) but a group of us are planning to live together.
There are many similar projects dotted around the UK [this is a UK-centric article] because not everyone wants to live in glorious isolation with a mortgage and a divorce/broken heart/mental illness/pet iguana for company. You name it: most of these things are a direct consequence of our modern age. Our decision to disconnect with authenticity.
Cooperatives like ours depend on issues of loan stock (low interest loans issued over pre-determined periods) and grant funding to get started. So far so good: we have a bank account, but not much money. We have a business plan, and we have a small measure of hope.
Many of us are holding out for a better life somewhere other than a dystopian jungle full of fast-food, cheap thrills and apparently empty people. We might succeed, we might fail but we are unlikely to stop trying until we find a place to make a stand and live more balanced lives.
Joe and me stood together, shuddering on a chilly Autumnal railway platform talking; half listening to the animated laughter of a small group of Chinese girls. We shared a half hour journey and nattered about this and that, amused by the fact that two so-called veteran commuters had managed to get on the wrong train, heading rapidly away from our true destination. A metaphor for modern life perhaps? Hell – I might even learn his real name one day.